A U.S. Coast Guard cutter rescued six Iranian mariners from a vessel in distress in the Persian Gulf, the second such incident in a week of tension punctuated by the Islamic republic's death sentence to a young Iranian-American man and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's sharp criticism Tuesday of Tehran's uranium enrichment activity.
The rescue was another reminder of U.S. efforts to demonstrate the humanitarian value of its naval presence in the Gulf, a strategic waterway that the Iranian government has threatened to close in retaliation for international sanctions over its nuclear program _ a dispute which only shows signs of escalation.
On Tuesday, Clinton condemned Iran for enriching uranium at an underground bunker to a level that can be upgraded more quickly for use in a nuclear weapon than the nation's main stockpile. She said Tehran was breaking its international obligations and demonstrating a "blatant disregard for its responsibilities."
Iran insists that its program is designed for energy and research purposes. But Clinton said "there is no plausible justification" for its decision to increase enrichment to 20 percent, which "brings Iran a significant step closer to having the capability to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium."
She urged Iran to halt its enrichment and return to negotiations. Several other countries condemned Iran's move, which was confirmed by the U.N. nuclear agency on Monday. The enrichment level is higher than the 3.5 percent being made at Iran's main plant and can be turned into fissile warhead material faster and with less work.
Washington and Tehran are also at odds over an Iranian court's death sentence Monday for Amir Hekmati, a 28-year-old former military translator who was born in Arizona and graduated from high school in Michigan. Iran says he is a CIA spy who tried to incriminate Iran in terrorist activity; the Obama administration flatly rejects the accusations.
Iran on Tuesday confirmed the decision to America's Swiss representatives in Tehran, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. Switzerland acts as a go-between in such situations, representing American interests in Iran because the U.S. and Iran have no diplomatic relations.
It is the first time Iran has handed down a sentence of capital punishment to a U.S. citizen since the Islamic Revolution 33 years ago. Hekmati's family says he was in Iran visiting his grandmothers.
"We strongly condemn the death sentence verdict given to Mr. Hekmati," Nuland told reporters. "We maintain, as we have from the beginning, that these charges against him are a fabrication. We call on the Iranian authorities to release him immediately."
Last Thursday, the U.S. Navy rescued 13 Iranian fishermen who had been held captive by pirates in the northern Arabian Sea, just outside the Gulf, for more than 40 days. That happened just days after Tehran warned the United States to keep its warships out of the Gulf. The fishermen were sent on their way and the 15 pirates were taken aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis.
Tuesday's rescue was the fifth time in 14 months that American naval forces have aided Iranians at sea, according to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. The biggest was on Feb. 3, 2011 when the guided-missile cruiser USS Cape St. George provided assistance to 16 Iranian mariners on a fishing vessel in the Gulf of Oman.
In the latest incident, Pentagon press secretary George Little said the Iranians aboard a cargo boat known as a dhow about 50 miles southeast of the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr used flares and flashlights to hail the cutter Monomoy at 3 a.m. local time. The vessel's master indicated that his engine room was flooding and "deemed not seaworthy," Little said.
In a more detailed account, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, based in Bahrain, said two of the Iranians were rescued from the dhow and four from a life raft tied to the vessel's stern. After being fed and provided blankets and water, the Iranians were transferred to an Iranian coast guard vessel, the Naji 7.
In its written account, Naval Forces Central Command quoted the dhow's owner, identified as Hakim Hamid-Awi, as telling the Americans, "Without your help, we were dead. Thank you for all that you did for us."
In that account, a civilian interpreter aboard the Monomoy quoted the captain of the Iranian coast guard vessel as saying he "sends his regards and thanks to our captain and all crewmembers for assisting and taking care of the Iranian sailors. Wishes us the best and thanks us for our cooperation."
The Monomoy is assigned to a naval task force of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.